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Posts Tagged ‘Ethereum’

Ethereum: Is it cost effective to create reliable contracts?

March 15th, 2015 No comments

The idea of embedding of a virtual machine supporting user executable code inside a cryptocurrency continues to fascinate me. I attended the Ethereum workshop on using Solidity to develop dapps (distributed apps) yesterday.

Solidity seems to have been settled on as the high-level language in which programs for the EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine) will be written, at least at launch. While Ethereum appear to know what they are doing in the design of the cryptocurrency (at least to my non-expert eyes), they are rank amateurs at language design. A good place to start learning is the rationales for Ada, Eiffel and Frink for starters.

Ethereum uses the term Contracts to describe programs executed by the EVM.

Anybody publishing a Contract that involves transferring something that has a real-world impact on their financial state (e.g., funds in cryptocurrency that are exchangeable for government backed currency) will want a high degree of confidence in the reliability of the code.

It is easy to imagine that people will be actively reverse engineering all published Contracts looking for flaws that can be exploited to siphon off funds into their personal accounts.

Writing high reliability code is time consuming and expensive. One way of reducing time/cost is to use a language that implicitly performs lots of checking, rather than requiring the developer to insert lots of explicit checks.

The following is an example of a variable definition providing information to the compiler that can be used to insert checks in the generated code (e.g., that no value outside the range 1 to 1000 is assigned to amount_to_pay); the developer does to not need to worry about explicitly adding checks in all the necessary places. This language functionality was invented in 1970 (in Pascal) but went out of fashion, for new languages, in the 1990s.

var amount_to_pay : 1..1000;

Languages such as Ada and Frink improve program reliability by providing functionality that reduces the effort developers need to invest in checking for unintended behavior.

Whatever language the code is written in, what happens if an attempt is made to assign 1001 to amount_to_pay? It does not matter whether the check is implicit or explicit, an error has occurred and has to be handled. As a developer of this code I want to know about the error (so I can fix it) and as a user of the code I do not want to lose money for executing a failed transaction.

At the moment the only Ethereum error handling solution I can think of is writing error information to the blockchain (in place of the information that would have been written on successful program execution); the user will still get charged for executing the program but at least will now have the evidence needed to obtain a refund (the user has to be charged to prevent denial of service attacks using Contracts containing a known fault).

I wonder who will find it worthwhile investing in creating the high reliability code needed for Contracts to be a viable solution to a problem?

My 2cents on the design of the contract language in Ethereum

January 12th, 2015 No comments

My previous post on Ethereum contracts got me thinking about how Ethereum should be going about creating a language and virtual machine for the contracts aspect of their cryptocurrency.

I would base the contract development gui on Scratch. Contract development will involve business people and having been extensively field tested on children Scratch stands some chance of being usable for business types.

For the language itself I would find a language already being used for contract related programming and simply adopt it.

At the moment the internal specification of contracts is visible for all to see. I expect a lot of people will be unwilling to share contract information with anybody outside of those they are dealing with. The Ethereum Virtual Machine needs to include opcodes that perform Homomorphic encryption, i.e., operations on encrypted values producing a result that is the encrypted version of the result from performing the same operation on the unencrypted values. Homomorphic encryption operations would allow writers of contracts that keep sensitive numeric values secret, they get to decide who gets a copy of thee dencryption keys needed to see the plain-text result.

The only way I see of overcoming the denial-of-service attack outlined in my previous post is to require that the miner who receives payment for executing a contract prove that they did the work of executing the contract by including program values existing at various randomly chosen points of contract execution.

Ethereum contracts, is the design viable?

January 11th, 2015 4 comments

I went to a workshop run by Ethereum today, to learn about cryptocurrency/virtual currency from a developer’s point of view. Ethereum can be thought of as Bitcoin+contracts; they are also doing various things to address some of the design problems experienced by Bitcoin. This article is about the contract component of Ethereum, which is being promoted as its unique selling point.

The Ethereum people talk so much about contacts that I thought once currency (known as ether, a finney is a thousandth of an ether, with other names going down to 10^{-18}) had been mined it was not considered legal tender until it was associated with the execution of a contract. In fact people will be free to mine as many ethers as they like without having any involvement with the contract side of things.

Ethereum expect the computational cost of mining to be significantly greater than the cost of executing contracts.

A contract is a self-contained piece of code created by a client and executed by a miner (the client pays the miner for this service). The result of executing the contract is added to the data associated with a block of mined currency (only one contract per block).

How confident can the client, and interested third parties, be that the miner paid to execute the contract is telling the truth and didn’t make up the data included in the mined currency block?

The solution adopted by Ethereum is to require all miners involved in the execution of contracts to execute all contracts that have been associated with mined currency, so that the result posted by the miner who got paid to execute each contract can be validated (51% agreement is required).

For this design to work, the cost of executing contracts to verify the data produced by other miners has to be small relative to paid income received from executing contracts.

If somebody is in the ether mining business, executing contracts has the potential to provide additional income for a small increase in effort, i.e., the currency has been mined why not get paid to execute contracts, adding the resulting data to blocks that have been mined?

Ethereum has specified the relative cost of operations executed by the Ethereum Virtual Machine. The Client specifies a value used to multiply these costs to produce an actual cost per operation that are willing to pay.

Requiring the community of contract executors to execute all contracts creates a possible vulnerability that can be exploited.

To profit from executing contracts the following condition must hold:

N_c A_o E_c < A_o P_o

where: N_c is the ratio of unpaid to paid contracts, A_o is the average number of operations performed per contract, E_c is the average execution cost per operation and P_o is the average amount clients pay per operation.

This simplifies to:

N_c {E_c/P_o} < 1

What would be a reasonable estimate for N_c, the ratio of unpaid to paid contracts? Would 1,000 miners offering contract execution services be a reasonable number? If we assume that contracts are evenly distributed among everybody involved in contract execution, then there are disincentives of scale; every new market entrant reduces income and increases costs for existing members.

What if businessman Bob wants to corner the contract market and decides to drive up the cost of executing contracts for all miners except himself? To do this he enlists the help of accomplice Alice as a client offering contracts at extremely poorly paid rates, which Bob is happy to accept and be paid for appearing to execute them (Alice has told him the result of executing the contracts); these contracts are expensive to execute, but Bob and Alice know number theory and don’t need a computer to figure out the results.

So Bob, Alice and all their university chums flood the Ethereum currency world with expensive to compute contracts. What conditions need to hold for them to continue profiting from executing contracts?

Lets assume that expensive contracts dominate, then the profitability condition becomes:

M_n N_c M_a A_o M_e E_c < A_o P_o

where: M_e is the increase in the number of contracts, M_a the increase in the average number of operations performed per contract and M_e the increase in average execution cost per operation.

This simplifies to:

M_n M_a M_e N_c {E_c/P_o} < 1

What values do we assign to the three multipliers: M_n M_a M_e? Lets say M_n=5,  M_a=10, M_e=3, which tells us that the price paid has to increase by a factor of 150 for those involved in the market to maintain the same profit level.

Given that Ethereum are making such a big fuss about contracts I had expected the language being used to express contracts to be tailored to that task. No such luck. Serpent is superficially Python-like, with the latest release moving in a Perl-ish direction, not in themselves a problem. The problem is that the languages is not business oriented, let alone contract oriented, and is really just a collection of features bolted together (the self absorbed use case for the new float type: “… elliptic curve signature pubkey recovery code…”, says it all). Another Ethereum language Mutan is claimed to be C-like; well, it does use curly brackets rather than indentation to denote scope.

If Ethereum does fly, then there is an opportunity for somebody to add-on a domain specific language for contracts, one that has the kind of built in checks that anybody involved with contracting will want to use t prevent expensive mistakes being made.